Coaching Instructional Agility - Steve Barkley

Coaching Instructional Agility

As I have been exploring acceleration as a mindset and approach for administrators, teachers, and students looking to the start of the next school year, the topic of instructional agility arose. I reviewed the text, Instructional Agility: Responding to Assessment With Real Time Decisions, and recorded a podcast with Tom Schimmer.

I asked Tom to define instructional agility and what led him and his co-authors to explore the topic.

Tom: Instructional agility came from my background in athletics; the idea of being agile and being able to make in-the-moment or on-the-spot maneuvers. We thought about this idea of using assessment evidence to make real-time instructional maneuvers. Being able to read and react the same way that an athlete would. You read the situation, then you react to it. We wanted teachers to be able to think about using assessment evidence as action…… as a way to make a maneuver, to guide instructional decisions. The reason that it became so relevant for us is because we have seen a massive influence by online grade books and electronic grade books over the past couple of decades.

Tom: That has led to a lot of places over-quantifying learning. We noticed that everything was sort of being spreadsheet-driven and number-driven and level-driven. We were losing some of the art of formative assessment, which is gathering evidence, which was really the foundation of what formative assessment was supposed to be. Gathering evidence to make an instructional maneuver. Using the evidence formatively to either provide feedback or plan the next steps. What we saw as we were exploring the research and thinking about assessment was that so many teachers looked at assessment as something they conducted, as opposed to thinking about assessment more organically as a way to help guide instruction. An easy way to think about instructional agility is to think about formative assessment, as an informative assessment. It informs a teacher’s ability to make decisions instructional and make those maneuvers on behalf of the students and for students to do it on their own behalf themselves.

The website AllThingsAssessment states, “Instructional agility is an intentional maneuver that a teacher makes in response to evidence of learning (i.e., observations, dialogue, student questions, student comments, and quizzes). Teachers respond to and engage students in a fluid instructional cycle. Teaching and assessment should happen simultaneously. When gathering evidence, a teacher makes flexible and precise decisions about which maneuver to use and where to spend more instructional time – for example, during the lesson or the next day.”

I am thinking that in addition to assessing student learning ongoing, we need to be assessing “learning production behaviors.” If my teaching/facilitating/coaching is not gaining the necessary student engagement, I need to adjust. The production behaviors precede the learning. Observing those learning production behaviors can be an important role for instructional coaches. As a teacher develops the observational skills to identify learning behaviors and learning progress, agility increases. Observing students in another teacher’s classroom is a great way to build skills and insights for agility. Instructional coaches often build strong observational skills because they get so many opportunities to observe and reflect on what they are seeing students do. When teaching, I don’t have the same observational freedom as I have to keep the “next step decision-making” in mind. Observing students and reflecting with other observers while someone else is teaching is a great professional development activity.

A group of students work together to solve the problems in their textbook during their precalculus class.

I asked Tom to provide administrators and coaches with some “look-fors” and “listen-fors” around instructional agility.

Tom: “One is the intentionality. When you walk into a classroom, just on a macro level, see how much constant back and forth there is between the teacher and the students. Is there a question, a response, another question, a prompt? Is the teacher moving around the classroom? What you would look for is the constant interaction between the students and the teacher.”

Tom: “When you walk into a classroom and there’s instructional agility going on, you’ll know when the teacher is assessing. You’ll know when the teacher is giving feedback and, you’ll know when the teacher is teaching, but the lines between them are blurry. There’s a really smooth transition between them and the students may not even realize they’re being assessed.”

Coaching conferences around instructional agility.

One of my favorite post-conferencing questions to ask teachers is how the movie that ran in their head as they were planning the learning activity compares with what they observed during the lesson. What were the signals that differed and what decisions did those observations lead you to make? This conversation sheds a lot of insight on a teachers’ planning, observation, and accessing practices, and their comfort with instructional agility.

Here is one teacher’s response to that question.

“There were definitely some additional scaffolds that I had to put in that I did not necessarily plan for. We did a geometry unit leading up to this task. But I still had to provide additional vocabulary scaffolds for some of my students. I had to scramble a little bit there. I had them get their math journals out and just pull those and walk around with their math journal to have that vocabulary in front of them. That was one thing I did not anticipate happening because we had done this unit, but I was able to make that adjustment. And it worked.” You can hear my post-conference with this teacher in this podcast.

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